Pitched His Tent

The Rev. Paul Nancarrow. This sermon is based on John 1:1-18.

“The Word became flesh and lived among us.”

That one verse, that one sentence from the Prologue to the Gospel of John, sums up in one statement the whole reason for our Christmas celebration. We celebrate Christmas as the birth of Jesus. And we celebrate the birth of Jesus because of the life of Jesus: his mission, his ministry, his teaching, his healing, his dying, his rising – all the things of Jesus’ life that show us the life of God, the living presence of God fully realized in a human person. At Christmas we celebrate the Mystery of the Incarnation, God-with-us in the body, how the Word became flesh and lived among us. That is our central Christian statement.

And yet it’s also kind of an odd statement, if you stop and think about it for a second. How can a word, an idea, a speech-act, turn into flesh, a body, meat? It’s sort of an odd thing to say.

It is even odder if you look at it in the original Greek. John chooses a strange verb to express how the Word lived among us. There are several words in Greek that connote living; but the one that John chooses is based on a root word that means “tent.” Literally: “tent.” If you translate John’s verse exactly word-for-word, it says “The Word became flesh and pitched his tent among us.”

Maybe John chose that verb to give his Gospel a kind of “down-home” feel; maybe he thought “pitching a tent” would sound more active and engaging and not just cerebral and intellectual, like some more formal Greek verbs would have sounded. Kind of like the way we would say “Walk a mile in my shoes” when we really mean “Try to understand my way of thinking and feeling,” and it has nothing to do with either walking or shoes.

But I think there might have been a deeper purpose in John’s verb choice as well.

You see, the image of the tent was really pretty important in biblical religion.

When God first called Abraham and Sarah to leave behind the life they’d known and to begin a new way of life following God, God told them to live in tents – not to build a fixed city, a permanent house, but to be mobile and agile, ready to pick up and go wherever God would lead. Pitching a tent was their sign that they were more devoted to God than to any one place or position or status.

Much later, when God led the people out of bondage in Egypt, and called Moses to the top of Mt Sinai to receive the Torah, the Law, the guidance of God for how the people should live out their faith – when God gave Torah, part of the teaching was instructions for how to build a tabernacle, a tent of meeting, a portable worship space the people could take with them in all their wanderings and travels. The tent was a sign that not only would they go with God, but God would go with them.

And that tabernacle, that portable shrine for a portable god, was a new thing. It opened up a whole new idea of the meaning of divinity. In the ancient world people thought that gods were connected to particular places. There was a god of this mountain and that river and this valley. And if you wanted to worship any given god, you had to go to the place where that god was. Even Yahweh, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, first called Moses at Mt Sinai, and told Moses to bring the people back to worship at Sinai. They thought Yahweh was connected to Sinai. It was in giving the instructions for how to pitch the tabernacle that God became unstuck from Sinai, as it were, and became known as a God not just of one place and one time and one people, but a God who could be in all times and all places and whose love extended to all peoples.

The tabernacle, God pitching a tent among the people in their travels, was a sign that there was no place beyond God’s reach, no time outside of God’s care. No matter where the people went – in their wilderness wanderings, in the settlement of Canaan, in the kingdom of Jerusalem, in the exile in Babylon, in the Return and Rebuilding, in the Diaspora of Jews throughout the ancient world, in movements in space that took place over centuries of time – no matter where the people went, God was with them, because pitching the tent was the sign that God was never limited to just one place and just one time.

And I think all of that was in John’s mind when he chose a verb to say “The Word became flesh and pitched his tent among us.”

On one level, John is following the long tradition of using the tent as a symbol that God is not limited in how and where God appears, but can move about to connect with people in all walks of life.

But on another level, John is adding something new to this symbol. By saying that the Word pitched his tent in a person, in a human being – not just in a tabernacle or a law or a scripture, but in a person – John is saying that God is not limited to just one part of life, just the things that we typically think of as “religious.” Instead, by saying that God pitched his tent in a human life, John is saying that all of human life is open to God. Pitching the tent still works here as a symbol that the Word of God is not limited to just the places we expect God to be.

About a year and a half ago, when Lee and I went on the mission trip to Haiti, we were advised to bring tents with us to sleep in. We’d be sleeping in the classrooms at St Marc’s school; but those rooms had no screens in their windows, and the mosquitoes could get in, and the mosquitoes in that area were carrying the chikungunya virus; so, if we wanted to sleep mosquito-free, we were advised to bring tents to sleep in. I got a little pop-up mosquito-net tent, and I pitched it in the classroom, with an air mattress and a sheet to sleep on.

Well the tent worked just fine; but the air mattress didn’t, and it leaked empty every night, leaving me on the concrete floor by morning. And the classroom was hot and uncomfortable and not a very good bedroom. And one morning I woke up just before dawn, lying on the concrete, and my back hurt, and my arms hurt, and the air was stuffy, and I was thoroughly sick of that little mosquito tent. I will confess to you that the feelings in my heart at that moment were just about anything but religious or spiritual.

So I got up, unzipped my tent, slipped out of the classroom, and into the schoolyard. The eastern horizon was just beginning to glow. The crescent moon was hanging above the mountain range that rose just beyond the village. The air was cool and clear – the coolest I’d felt since we’d arrived in Haiti. There was no one else around, and I had a moment of solitude for the first time since the trip began. And in that moment there came such peace, such recognition that Jesus was there, that the life that is light filled that school and all the people who learned and worked there, and that we had come on a mission to witness the power to become children of God that drew us all together and made us all one. The Word of God pitched a tent in that moment, better than I had pitched my tent back in the classroom, and enlightened me just a little with grace and truth.

And in what unexpected moments in your life will God pitch a tent in this Christmas season? In what not particularly religious, not specially spiritual experience will the light that enlightens everyone shine a little bit more for you? What bit of beauty, what opening of peace, what recognition of another person as a child of God – maybe a stranger, maybe an enemy, maybe even someone you’ve always thought worshipped a different god or no god at all, but still a child of God? What grace and truth will open your heart because the Word of God has come to dwell in you? How will the Mystery of the Incarnation be unlimited for you?

The Word became flesh and lived among us. May you witness his glory, at this Christmas time, and always. Amen.